White House Petitions: A Small Sample of Popular Feedback

E-participation, Facilitation

The newly-announced We The People e-petition initiative by the White House has been getting a lot of coverage (for example, see here, here, here, here, here).

I spent Saturday reading through comment threads on various sites to look for additional feedback, criticisms and concerns related to the public participation process, some of which I’m listing below. Try if you can spot any themes.

1. Youtube: A Big Change Coming to WhiteHouse.Gov

  • Will they actually listen, or is this something to distract people?
  • This could be totally amazing or totally useless, depending on how the petitions work and if anything is done because of the most popular ones.
  • Sounds like a good idea to give people another way to try to influence govt besides rants, blogs, complaining letters, etc. Will attention really be paid to a good idea coming from outside DC?
  • Is this just a mechanism by which tax dollars will be used to pay for the collection of information about “likely voters” in preparation for the 2012 campaign?
  • The biggest hole in this idea is that because it’s based online, completely public, foreigners can create and sign petitions. This negates the opinions of the true citizens of this country whose government’s policies affects the greatest.
  • … and even if they redirect IP’s, it won’t stop those who are not citizens of the US inside of this country who are using the computers to get access to the site. (illegal immigrants for instance).
  • A new way to voice your concerns or a new way for the govt. to data mine? [...]
  • [...] We found yet another way to spend your money on useless programs. [...]
  • trying to gain respect back from the american people eh… AIN’T GONNA WORK!!!!
  • ….so Obama is so scared of what the unfiltered (in person) American people will say! He has created an online filter system. Who monitors this? Van Jones?The whole thing will be a liberal lie. Producing Liberal mcfacts.

2. Hotair: White House introduces new online petition website for some reason

The post itself gives this assessment:

If, as I suspect, the site is really just a ploy for his campaign so that they can direct Obama donors there and crank out talking-point petitions for him about how “the people” demand tax hikes on the rich or whatever, then it’s very much true to form. Petitions are supposed to be grassroots populist measures aimed at getting the government to act; if this is a campaign device then it’s really the opposite, a way for the head of government to get his supporters to act on his behalf so that he can get reelected. In fact, tea-party groups are already looking into this as a type of lobbying venture paid for with taxpayer money. I doubt it’s illegal, but it tells you a lot about how far the 2008 magic has faded that Captain Charisma might now be relying on Internet petitions to try to influence Congress.

A few comments head in the same general direction:

  • Depending on whether they like the petition or not, you end up on one of two lists: “donors” or “enemies”.
  • Or, it could be an email harvesting platform… it needs to be looked out how the information submitted is used… will his campaign cross reference email addresses with his campaign?
  • Exactly, how will the email addresses who petition on something like Fast and Furious be used? Just look at what is happened to Gibson Guitars… I would be afraid to petition against Obama with my real email address…
  • Time to collect email addresses for the 2012 campaign I guess.
  • This is another example of Obama trying to make Congress seem irrelevant to the masses.
  • [...] if you go through the site and to the email link page you’ll see there is no privacy policy (they ask for your email address & zip code). Looks like another DNC data-mining operation….
  • [...] Astroblogging on the taxpayers’ dime.
  • I always thought the government organized things called elections to see what the people wanted. So if requiring an ID disenfranchises poor citizens, what does needed a computer and an internet connection do?
  • This has nothing to do with “petitions”. This is social media networking/marketing gathering as many emails and names as possible and using those lists for fund raising. Pretty obvious just like those GOP “surveys” I chuck in the trash every other week.

3. Politico: White House: Send us your petitions

The article quotes a number of people in the government, politics & technology space:

  • Joe Newman (a spokesman for the Project On Government Oversight): “Encouraging citizens’ participation is never a bad thing, [b]ut part of me is very skeptical that they’ll be able to handle the number of petitions that come in and give it any sort of thorough review.”
  • Patrice McDermott (director Open The Government): “The other test is that range of issues [...] Is it going to be only issues that are only of political benefit to the White House, or — who designs that, and how’s it going to be limited, and will it change over time?”
  • Patrick Ruffini (a partner at the Republican-leaning digital media firm Engage): “It’s just more people that they can communicate with [...] It’s the government equivalent of, ‘you may win an iPad,’”
  • Kirsten Kukowski (RNC spokeswoman): “[...] more campaign tactics coming out from the official White House”

Again, a few comments:

  • [...] Who in the right mind would ever believe for a “NewYork Second” that this Administration would pay attention to anything that any non Ivy League educated American would put forward to them. [...]
  • [...] Pure gimmick. For one, they are not going to “consider” ANYTHING that they would rather avoid for political reasons [...] Besides, these “petitions” are so easy to fake and rig”. [...]
  • You can bet your bottom dollar that this is just a political gimmick to make the public feel better. So, it’s my opinion, that you would be wasting time in participating.
  • A symbolic gesture at best, even if a few coherent petitions with enough genuine signatures are selected for “action”.

* * *

Despite the fact that many of these comments are buried in a sea of noise (follow the links to Youtube or Hotair to appreciate first-hand the quality and tone of the conversation), I believe that most of the concerns expressed are very valid indeed and that they deserve to be addressed by the White House, ideally in the same venues where they’ve been raised.

In public participation, so much depends on trust. Just looking over this small and non-representative sample of comments, it’s obvious that the White House lacks trust among many citizens and potential participants. In order to increase trust, difficult as that may seem, the White House is well-advised to not let these comments go unchallenged or unanswered.

There are a number of recurring themes (with regard to impact, privacy, ethics etc.), so answers to those comments should probably be added to the official FAQ I suggested on Friday.

About the author: Tim Bonnemann is the founder, President and CEO of Intellitics, Inc., a digital engagement company based in San José, California (USA).

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